Scott Morrison attends a Chinese New Year ceremony in 2019. (Image: AAP/Ellen Smith)

Senior Australian political figures can curse the American president as often as they please without fearing Trump will halt shipments of Australian beef or tell Amazon to stop dealing with Australian customers. Yet it appears few of our political leaders dare utter a harsh word about China’s president, or speak frankly about the serious challenges that country presents to Australia for fear of the consequences.

As a result, the public conversation is at risk of becoming skewed. As prime minister Turnbull could mock President Trump in public and yet back-bencher Andrew Hastie is taken to task for speaking frankly about China.

By any normal measure it should not be too difficult for the governments of Australia and China to get along. Our national economies are basically complementary, our people-to-people ties are dense and fruitful, and for all our security concerns the two countries are hardly strategic competitors. And yet things have gone badly awry. 

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Was it something we said? 

Some think so. Speaking at the Lowy Institute in Sydney in June, Kevin Rudd blasted Malcolm Turnbull for undermining relations by “opening his big mouth”. What Turnbull did to warrant this blast was echo a phrase often attributed to Mao Zedong while he was introducing legislation in 2017 to counter foreign government interference in Australia. “And so we say,” Turnbull announced before reverting to Mandarin, “Aodaliya renmin zhanqilai — the Australian people stand up.”

According to Rudd, this statement was the tipping point in the relationship. “You want to pick the day when the relationship went — in my judgment, unnecessarily — down the gurgler? It was that day,” Rudd told the Lowy crowd.

Oddly enough, Rudd’s critics made similar claims about something he said himself a decade earlier, in April 2008, which riled authorities in Beijing. Delivering a speech in fluent Mandarin at Peking University during a period of acute sensitivity ahead of the Olympics, Rudd spoke as a “zhengyou” (critical friend) who was keen to admonish China over its human rights record in Tibet. For the remainder of his China visit, Rudd was shunned by the country’s senior leadership and on his return home he found Australia relegated to China’s sin bin for over a year. 

In fact Turnbull and Rudd each raised serious concerns that deserved a public hearing… but both spoke in Mandarin. One of the standard rules in the diplomat’s training manual is stick to your own language. Could there be a lesson for Prime Minister Morrison here? Speak up, but stick to English.

The Chinese Communist Party is more than usually protective about what anyone says in China’s national language. The party assumes that it owns the language and, as presumptive owner, that it has the right to police anything said or published in the language anywhere on earth. 

Some idea of the party’s sensitivity around language can be gleaned from rules governing use of the word for China (Zhongguo). Within China no private entity or independent organisation —  no business, agency, charity, sporting code, professional association or organisation whatsoever —  can call itself “China-this” or “Chinese-that” unless it is a formal part of the Communist Party’s institutional apparatus. The name of the country is a party brand.

This practice escalates through the system. So, as a general rule, the names of cities and provinces belong to the local party apparatus too. An Australian equivalent would be for the Commonwealth government to reserve the use of “Australia” for itself and Sydney City Council to claim ownership of the word “Sydney”. There would be no Australian newspaper or Sydney Morning Herald. No AFL either. That’s how China works under a party that insists on owning and ruling virtually everything, including the national language.

The party is far less sensitive about what is said in other peoples’ languages. Even within China it raises no objection to people branding an organisation “Chinese” or “China” in English.  

There are lessons here. We can take it for granted that any Australian government decision or public statement in English that Beijing finds unpalatable is unlikely to go down well with officials in China. This is largely because of the content conveyed, not the words conveying it. If something needs saying then it needs to be said. 

A second lesson is this: brief courtesy words aside, Australian leaders should avoid speaking or publishing in that country’s national language in all public communications in formal or semi-formal settings. But they should be firm and confident in speaking English, Australia’s national language, to talk frankly about all foreign leaders and powers, equally.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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